Shelbyville project kicks off with a series of “Welcoming” videos

Chances are you haven’t yet heard of Shelbyville, a small rural community in Tennessee. If not, then you’re probably also unaware of the upcoming “Welcome to Shelbyville” documentary or the online project that is forging a pilot, or prototype, for communities to tell and share their own stories. So let me share my initial impressions of this remarkable, ambitious effort.

Last Monday I was lucky enough to be a part of a “digital brain trust” of 20 progressive media and non-profit representatives at the Bay Area Video Coalition headquarters. The event was convened by Active Voice, a San Francisco-based non-profit that uses film, television, and multimedia to spark social change. We spent two hours reviewing the Shelbyville Multimedia project and offering ideas about how to finish it out and what to do differently next time.

What is the Shelbyville Project?

miss-marilyn
Miss Marilyn, a retired public elementary school teacher who taught in Shelbyville

Active Voice conceived the vision of building a story-driven web platform and brought together a team consisting of Free Range Studios, a creative services firm, and documentary filmmaker Kelly Whalen, who produced webisodes for the project. Over much of the past year, the parties combined efforts to create the ShelbyvilleMultimedia.org website and “Welcome to Shelbyville”, a documentary directed and produced by Kim A. Snyder that will air on the PBS series “Independent Lens” on May 24.

The Shelbyville project is a series of stories about immigrant integration. One of Active Voice’s objectives was to introduce people to Welcoming America, an umbrella organization that works to promote mutual respect and cooperation between foreign-born and U.S.-born residents. It is overseeing “welcoming” initiatives in 14 states, including Welcoming Tennessee.

“They opened doors for us in Shelbyville and introduced us to other affiliates, who hosted community ‘sneak previews’ in October,” said Active Voice operations director Daniel Moretti.

Active Voice approached Irina Lee, the creator of First Person American, about working on a pilot based on the Welcoming Stories theme.

The idea, Moretti said, was “to combine FPA’s aesthetic and authenticity with Active Voice’s need to attract user-contributed stories. We’re hoping to raise funds to keep going, to both send Irina to other cities, and to commission other artists to create new Welcoming Stories formats.”

You can see the webisodes about the project — produced by Active Voice in association with the BeCause Foundation — on Shelbyville Multimedia’s Vimeo channel. You can also see some of the Welcoming Stories on the Tumblr site created by Active Voice and Free Range.

Positive Stories

The tone of the two sites is positive and uplifting.

As Moretti told us: “We didn’t want to build an advocacy site but a site to help people take the next step by providing options for different levels of engagement.”

While the project took a lens to the issue of immigration in rural Shelbyville, Tenn., Moretti pointed out: “We’re media strategists, not immigrant integration specialists. We had a feeling that what was going on in Shelbyville would resonate with people in small towns and large cities across the country, and we’re eager to help them connect to these issues in a human and nuanced way. But Welcoming America is doing this important work for the long haul, and we hope the website will be a great vehicle for them.”

The story-driven web platform that Active Voice and Free Range developed, then, is not just to showcase webisodes, parts of a documentary or even the story of Shelbyville. Active Voice sees it as an early pilot of how other communities can tell their stories in a deep, meaningful but easy and lightweight way, with the focus on individuals’ stories rather than forcing users to wade through a complex backstory.

If you’re an educator, activist, or community organization that wants to engage on a deeper level and embed some of the webisodes on your own site or blog and invite conversations about the stories, head to the webisode discussion questions page.

The initiative’s promise as a prototype

ActiveVoice gathering on Shelbyville project
The ActiveVoice gathering in San Francisco on March 14

In my opinion, this is a superb initiative. I think it will attract considerable interest across a number of sectors: educators looking for meaningful materials to incorporate into curricula, community activists and cause organization folks interested in a promising new social change platform, and others.

The producers were wise to tap into an outside brain trust for a reality check at a critical juncture in the project — two months before the documentary airs on national television.

Here are some reactions and ideas I tossed out or have thought of since — some of which others echoed or built on:

  • I love the non-linear aspect of the site and the stories that are built through each resident. Every “character” gets his or her own page, containing a profile, his or her webisodes, a brief quote and short bio. Nice. John Bruce of ForwardMapworks called it “transmedia,” allowing the user to enter the story at multiple points.
  • Also I love the focus on character arcs and interesting personalities, rather than loading visitors down with too many facts.
  • I suggested holding a live online town hall in Shelbyville on the evening of May 24 to coincide with the national broadcast — and to web stream it with LiveStream (another participant suggested CoverItLive) to enable both viewing and comments.
  • I also suggested offering the webisodes as an ongoing weekly series on a national site or in a local publication to gain added visibility and traction — maybe in Nashvillest, my favorite hyper-local web publication.
  • And I suggested creating a strong call to action on the front page of Shelbyville Multimedia and to create a Welcoming Toolkit that would offer tools and resources to community activists and reformers.
  • I would toss out the Shelbyville Multimedia logo and create a new one with the state of Tennessee as the backdrop while incorporating a dot to designate where, exactly Shelbyville is located — the very first question everyone asks when they come to the site. And use it across all online properties.
  • I think the project took a slight wrong turn with its initial branding. “Shelbyville Multimedia” doesn’t convey the idea of community residents sharing their personal stories. (I will also add that some good URLs, like ShelbyvilleVoices.com, are still available.)
  • As a result, it’s difficult to tie the disparate elements of the project together. The team used WordPress as its still-in-progress web platform and a separate Tumblr site, with completely different branding, as a way for people to contribute their own stories. In the end, the Tumblr site seems to detract from the main site.
  • The team also decided not to allow comments or conversations on the main site, chiefly because of issues regarding limited resources for moderation. I wouldn’t have gone that way: I think you need to build in those capabilities as a fundamental part of any site that calls itself a community platform. Certainly conversations should be encouraged to bloom across independent sites and blogs, but the lack of a central “conversation hub” seems to swim against the tide in this era of interactivity, even if many of the conversations are happening elsewhere.
  • As it is, that shortcoming can be ameliorated by adding a series of conversation widgets — pulling from Twitter or outside blogs — on the main site.
  • Similarly, the fact that supporters who want to embed Shelbyville webisodes on their own sites cannot do so without obtaining permission in advance seems like a business decision forced on the team by traditional filmmakers concerned about control over digital rights. Certainly, there are tradeoffs and difficult choices that face project leaders when choosing nationally acclaimed filmmakers over untested documentarians who lean toward openness. But I sense that, for the next project, there are plenty of talented filmmakers and digital storytellers who prize sharing and creativity and are adept at producing high-quality visual stories.

Those reservations aside, Shelbyville Mutlimedia deserves kudos for pulling together an accomplished site in just a few months. It’s an inspiring, rare, and possibly groundbreaking project that’s worth your attention — and perhaps a welcoming initiative in your own community.

What are your impressions? Please share your thoughts in the comments.